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Privas Bréauté, V. (2023). Improvisation and Role-play as Enactive Pedagogical Devices to Learn and Teach English as a Foreign Language. NJ:  Drama Australia Journal, 46(1).
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Research in neuroscience has come to support the intuitive understanding of many language teachers: art and artistic practices can be used in pedagogical contexts to help students learn a language better (Aden, 2012, 2017). However, it seems that, in France, many secondary school language teachers still do not integrate artistic practices in their pedagogies. This occurs for many reasons. In this article, the impressions of teachers are gathered about the use of drama (improvisation and role-play) in language classes, with the overall aim being to understand why artistic practices are so under-represented in secondary education.


This article focuses on perceptions of the pedagogical value of artistic practices used as innovative devices when it comes to learning and teaching English as a foreign language. Research in neuroscience has come to support the intuitions of many language teachers that art and artistic practices can be used in pedagogical contexts to help students learn a language better (Aden, 2012, 2017). For example, the enaction paradigm (Varela, 1996; Varela et al., 1993) and the matrix of emotional thought (Immordino-Yang, 2016) both fall within the theories of embodied cognition (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). For these scientists, bodies, minds, and emotions all participate in accessing cognition in contextualized situations, including learning a language. However, it seems that, in France, many secondary school language teachers don’t integrate artistic practices in their pedagogies. This occurs for many reasons. I have therefore been interested in collecting the feelings and impressions of pre-service language teachers about the use of drama (improvisation and role-play) in language classes, with the aim of understanding why artistic practices are so under-represented in secondary education. The research involved 22 pre-service English teachers and was structured as an intervention, along with pre- and post-intervention questionnaires. First, the participants filled in a pre-questionnaire about the introduction of innovative educational devices in classes. They then attended artistic workshops based on drama activities. Finally, they answered a series of questions. The data include their responses to the questionnaires (useful for brief descriptive statistics), as well as photos and videos of the workshops analysed through a qualitative approach, and the pre-service teachers’ responses and attitudes after trying the artistic practices in educational contexts, as well as examining their attitudes during the workshops.

Informing Literature

For many neuroscientists (Varela, Damasio, Immordino-Yang), bodies, minds, and emotions work together to facilitate access to cognition in contextualised situations. This includes learning a language.

Cognitive and affective neuroscience

Varela et al. (1993, p. 35) propose the ‘enaction paradigm’ from the ‘verb to enact – to arouse, to bring about, to bring forth – to emphasise the growing conviction that cognition, far from being the representation of a pre-given world, is the joint advent of a world and a mind from the history of the various actions that a being performs in the world’[1] (my translation). Their research on the emergence of cognition has led them to define three pillars on which this paradigm rests: participatory structural coupling, individual learning path, emergence of meaning. The enaction paradigm indicates that cognition arises from an individual’s perception of a given environment and the action that follows from it. It places the body and the emotions at the centre of learning in a perception-action loop and invites us to understand that sense-making only occurs through the cooperation of the body, the emotions, and the mind in a specific context.

In Invitation aux sciences cognitives, Varela explains that ‘the most important faculty of all living cognition is to ask the relevant questions that arise at every moment of our lives. They are not predefined but enacted, they are made to emerge in a specific setting and the criteria of relevance are dictated by our common sense, always in a contextual way’[2] (Varela, 1996, p. 91, my translation). Cognition is therefore embodied and contextualised.

Varela adds that languages are used by people to meet, ‘to couple’, so as to make meaning emerge. He does not consider the language as a transmission of information. For him, it is a way of coupling individuals within a species for the coordination of action and he indicates that the body occupies a preponderant place in language learning: ‘the implication of the body and emotions in the process of learning is essential since this precisely makes the emergence of the new possible. If learning is not rooted in a structural work with the body, it is superficial and passes very quickly to a kind of classification of oblivion of abstraction’[3] (Varela in Trocmé-Fabre, 1994a, my translation). Varela argues that pure rationality does not exist and explains that the trap associated with language is to think that rationality and emotionality are distant and separate things. For him, ‘the structural posture of a body, which includes all the emotional and hormonal levels, is not separable from rational contents. Rationality is always imbued with this emotional side’[4] (Varela in Trocmé-Fabre, 1994b, my translation). Varela thus places emotions at the heart of learning. Thought is not separated from the body and emotions, thoughts and words are embodied, cognition is incarnated. Therefore, the body and emotions are part and parcel of language learning.

Emotional thought

The enaction paradigm is supported by Damasio, who adds that emotions are an integral part of the learning process since ‘the sites of emotion induction trigger a number of signals to other sites in the brain (…) and to the body’[5] (Damasio, 2002, p. 76, my translation). Emotions precisely impact consciousness and make access to cognition possible. Damasio and his colleagues, including Immordino-Yang, have led the field into a new view of intelligence in which emotions and feelings of emotion-related bodily reactions are critical to steer thinking and decision-making. They note:

The aspects of cognition that are recruited most heavily in education, including learning, attention, memory, decision-making, motivation, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by emotion and in fact subsumed within the processes of emotion. Emotions entail the perception of an emotionally competent trigger, a situation either real or imagined that has the power to induce an emotion, as well as a chain of physiological events that will enable changes in both the body and the mind. (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007, p. 3)

Here emotions are conceptualised as a repertoire of know-how and actions that allow people to respond appropriately in different situations.

Immordino-Yang, who was one of Damasio’s former EdD candidates, writes:

A revolution in neuroscience over the past two decades has overturned early notions that emotions interfere with learning, revealing instead that emotion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes. It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage in complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense: the brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. (Immordino-Yang, 2016, p. 18)

She coined the phrase ‘emotional thought’, which can be viewed as a matrix referring to ‘the large overlap between cognition and emotion’ (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1.Emotional thought (Immordino-Yang, 2016, p. 38)

Emotional thoughts can be conscious or nonconscious and are the processes by which emotion-related bodily sensations come into one’s conscious awareness. They can modify the state of the body – tensing or relaxing the skeletal muscles or changing the heart rate, for instance. In turn, bodily sensations of these modifications, either actual or simulated, contribute – consciously or non-consciously – to feelings, which can then influence thought. It is thus crucial for educators to consider emotions in (language) learning/teaching.

Finally, the discovery of the existence of mirror neurons by Rizzolatti and Craighero (2005) and developed by Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia (2008) has raised understanding of why we can – or cannot – feel empathy for others. These advances in neuroscience clearly have relevance in relation to the use of drama, an artistic practice based on corporeality, emotionality and human encounters, in language education.

Cognitive psychology

Eight decades after the development of the first intelligence tests, Gardner (1983) challenged the idea that intelligence can be objectively measured or reduced to a single quotient or score. He asserted that western culture has defined intelligence too narrowly and suggests, in Frames of Mind (1983), the existence of seven intelligences: visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal. Later, two other types were added: naturalistic and existential. Gardner’s studies have encouraged educators and parents to see children as equals regardless of a quotient produced from an intelligence exam or of academic domains for which they develop competences. Likewise, children do not have a single type of intelligence. While Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory has recently been put into question (Klein, 2012), its fundamentals are still of interest and worthy of consideration by educators.

Contemporary research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, backed up by medical equipment such as EEG and MRI (Damasio, 2002; Immordino-Yang, 2016; Varela, 1996), has come to confirm the intuitions of linguists like Lakoff and Johnson and educators like Dewey. Their ideas will be discussed next.

Embodied and experiential learning

In the 1980s, linguists began to explore how abstract concepts could be based on metaphors of bodily and physical concepts. There was a growing commitment to the idea that the mind must be understood in the context of its relationship to a physical body that interacts with the world. Wilson writes:

It is argued that we have evolved from creatures whose neural resources were devoted primarily to perceptual and motoric processing, and whose cognitive activity consisted largely of immediate, online interaction with the environment. Hence human cognition, rather than being centralized, abstract, and sharply distinct from peripheral input and output modules, may instead have deep roots in sensorimotor processing. (Wilson, 2002, p. 625).

This has led Lakoff and Johnson (in Philosophy in the Flesh, the Embodied Mind, and its Challenge to Western Thought) to argue that: ‘the mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. These are three major findings of cognitive science.’(Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 3) This discovery has initiated what is now referred to as ‘embodied cognition’.

Before that, Dewey had put forward the idea that ‘there is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education’ (Dewey, 1938, p. 20) and started demonstrating that pupils learn better through experience, action and participation – engaging both body and mind – because this gives way to meaning. In this context, Dewey viewed artistic practices as privileged devices for learning as they enable pupils to have a phenomenological experience of the world:

As we manipulate, we touch and feel, as we look, we see; as we listen, we hear. The hand moves with etching needle or with brush. The eye attends and reports the consequence of what is done. Because of this intimate connection, subsequent doing is cumulative and not a matter of caprice nor yet of routine. In an empathic artistic-esthetic experience, the relation is so close that it controls simultaneously both the doing and the perception. (Dewey, 1934/2005, p. 50)

Drama and Language Learning

Considering these theories and paradigms, drama is clearly a pedagogical approach that should provide useful support for the process of language learning (Adebiyi & Adelabu, 2013; McAtamney, 2021; Palechorou & Winston, 2012): it offers a context in which learning is situated and experienced (Byram & Fleming, 1998); it involves bodies, minds, and emotions (Baldwin, 2004; DiNapoli, 2009; Donelan, 2002; Miller & Saxton, 2011); and role-play and drama are a means of developing empathy since participants in drama may be led to feel, or to imagine, what others feel (Baldwin, 2004; Miller & Saxton, 2011). Drama and drama activities also enable each learner to develop competences (Asimidou et al., 2021; Galante & Thomson, 2017) following their own learning preferences (Piazzoli, 2018). When introduced in classrooms, they help pupils engage fully in tasks (Hart et al., 2017) and overcome speaking anxiety (Atas, 2015).

These reasons, as well as research in teacher training and drama (Buley et al., 2019; Dunn & Stinson, 2011; Even, 2020; Mages, 2020), led me to explore how pre-service English teachers could integrate drama in their practice with secondary-school students (Piazzoli, 2017; Schewe, 2013). In particular, I wanted to get feedback from them in order to understand why artistic practices in general, and drama more specifically, are underutilised by teachers in language classes in France.

Research methodology

Research protocol

This project involved 22 master’s degree students working as pre-service English teachers in French secondary schools (middle schools and high schools) in the Lorraine region. It comprised four 2-hour courses using three different approaches to language teaching: board games, drawing and drama (Table 1).

Table 1.Course plan
Class/ workshop Research
Course 1 Presentation of the courses Pre-questionnaire
Course 2 Board games (trial + explanations) Questionnaire 1
Course 3 Drawing (trial + explanations) Questionnaire 2
Course 4 Drama (trial + explanations) Questionnaire 3

My aim was to get to know the pre-service teachers’ impressions of these approaches in language classrooms. This project ran from September to November 2021. In this paper, I will only focus on the drama course, which was broken down into three phases: preparation, performance, and feedback.

The course started with several warm-up activities including non-verbal and verbal ones. Non-verbal activities played the role of icebreakers, while verbal activities were aimed at facilitating a progressive approach to the language. Then, for their final task, the students, in two groups made up of four sub-groups, were encouraged to take up roles and improvise a series of news reports within a news bulletin, as if on TV.

Improvisation was chosen because it is an effective way of engaging inexperienced learners in drama activities (Drinko, 2013; Goodnight et al., 2021) and is an artistic genre that has proven to be efficient in teacher training (Graue et al., 2015; Lutzker, 2022; Seppänen et al., 2019).

The last phase – the feedback phase – provided time for participants to fill in the post-intervention questionnaire and provide explanations about the use of drama in language classes through neuroscientific and psycholinguistic theories. I also wanted them to become aware of the affordances of drama in education (Grove O’Grady, 2019).

Research data

The data collected are comprised of one pre-intervention questionnaire (appendix 1) and one post-intervention questionnaire (appendix 2) filled in on Google forms after the role-play and improvisation activities. The aim of the pre-questionnaire was to see if the students knew what was meant by ‘educational device’ – a term used by Albero and Montandon who consider an educational device to be: 1) a ‘functional artifact that materialises a particular organization of objects, actors, structures, and systems of relations, according to the training objectives in a specific situation’[6] (Albero, 2010, p. 48, my translation) and 2) ‘central and strategic to an entire educational policy that crosses all levels from learning approaches to teaching practices’[7] (Montandon, 2002, p. 16, my translation). The post-questionnaire was intended to collect their impressions and emotions, as well as suggestions for future use in class considering the skills developed by the device.

From the participants’ responses, I was able to extract both qualitative and quantitative data. Photos and videos taken during the workshops are also part of the qualitative data of this project and help to illustrate the experience.


Pre- intervention questionnaire

The average age of the population involved in this study was 23. All of the participants had already taught English in secondary schools, in the context of training periods: 16/22 in middle schools and 11/22 in high schools. 100% of students did not know what an ‘educational device’ was. However, when asked to define the phrase, their suggestions were accurate. Some said it could be ‘a tool’, ‘what is put in place to learn a language’, ‘a method that would have already proved its worth in teaching and that could be implemented in different contexts by the teacher or the learner’. Another wrote that an ‘educational device’ might be made up of ‘pedagogical methods used to facilitate learning, achieve set objectives.’

Post-intervention questionnaire

Because we were still facing covid-19 restrictions, only 17 students participated in the drama workshop, therefore only 17/22 post-questionnaires were completed. Out of the 17 pre-service teachers, 6 had never tried drama before.

When asked why they thought that drama might be educational, many of them pointed out the development of oral skills, mainly speaking, with one respondent suggesting: ‘it allows oral expression, to train pronunciation, accentuation but also vocabulary.’ Other students focused on language skills like writing, noting: ‘in language teaching, theatre allows for foreign language improvisation (speaking), and script development (writing); with warm-ups like we did (3-elbow), it also allows for vocabulary review (listening)’; and ‘it allows us to reactivate linguistic knowledge and to work on prosody and stress.’ Some of them added that drama facilitates the development of other, more transferable, skills. For example: ‘drama allows us to work on more than just speaking skills, it gives free rein to the pupil’s imagination’, ‘the pupil learns by having fun and being in control of their production.’ As we can see in photos 1, 2 and 3[8] – despite their face masks – the laughter that burst out in class while experiencing role play and improvisation, suggests that the pre-service teachers had fun.

Photos 1, 2 and 3
Photos 1, 2 and 3.Practising drama activities

One of the key questions in the post-questionnaire was aimed at gathering their first impressions about the experience they had just gone through. Their answers reveal the evolution of their emotions: some felt joy first and then stress, others felt stress first and then joy, depending on their own relationship and background with drama activities.

As for their impressions on what drama activities can contribute to language learning, the results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2
Table 2.Participant Responses – Contribution of drama activities in language learning contexts

When considering the quantitative data, 14 students totally agreed, 2 agreed and 1 disagreed to the proposal that drama develops language skills, while 15 totally agreed and one student agreed to the statement that drama develops other types of skills. In relation to pupils being receptive to drama in class, 12 agreed, 4 totally agreed, and 1 disagreed.

Finally, as part of the data collection process, participants were invited to write a paragraph about classroom applications and the skills they thought drama activities could develop in this context. One noted that ‘it is a device that can be easily adapted to all levels’, while another suggested that ‘you need to adapt the instructions given and the expectations to the level of the pupil’.

Those who included additional responses, offered the following comments:

  1. In middle school context: one respondent noted that they would use improvisation and role plays (‘we can ask 6th graders to act out a scene where they meet someone in the street and talk about their hobbies, what they like to do, general information such as where they live, whether they have brothers and sisters etc.’). They would introduce warm up (and non-verbal) activities with young pupils to help them learn vocabulary, train their pronunciation, tame and gain control of their bodies (mainly because of ‘puberty since they are teenagers’, as they say).

  2. In high school: they would rather add a dramatic frame and work on plays by Shakespeare, ‘for instance Romeo and Juliet’. This would help them to trigger speaking: ‘acting will help put students in the right frame of mind for oral language practice’, ‘although acting can be a scary experience for some pupils, it can be an effective way of getting them to practice the language.’ Some pre-service teachers would even ask high school students to write a play.

  3. A last group of students pointed out the use of drama in very specific contexts to strengthen precise competences: ‘more cultural aspects of the language could be worked on, such as accents, slang perhaps, or even specific vocabulary (transport, commerce, tourism…)’.

The pre-service teachers intuitively saw a scale in the use of drama activities in English-as-a-foreign-language classes noting: improvisation and role-play would be introduced with A1-A2 (beginner) pupils, while drama in its aesthetic dimension would be studied with B1-C2 (intermediate and advanced) pupils, as they refer to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).


In response to this course, it seems that many students felt that enactive devices such as drama, including role-play and improvisation, could facilitate language learning because they work on all the levels of embodied cognition theories:

  1. On a cognitive plane since the pre-service teachers highlighted the development of language skills and other competences (creativity, imagination, control)

  2. On an emotional plane since they felt joy, happiness or stress and embarrassment and learnt that these emotions can impact learning

  3. On a psychological plane since the pre-service teachers realised the impact of drama activities on classroom atmosphere. Two students wrote that a) ‘putting theatre in the classroom will allow all the pupils to get to know each other better and to let themselves be carried away by the play, even for the most reticent and shy among them’ and b) ‘the pupil is on the move, with friends to create a short performance, something unusual for them.’

The responses of the pre-service teachers illustrate what Miller and Saxton advise: ‘the growing body of research into the brain makes it clear that educators need to foreground the importance of challenging and imaginative learning experiences for their classrooms and the role that the emotions play in that learning’ (Miller & Saxton, 2011, p. 126). In addition, some students felt that more was at stake, including all the possible ways to communicate.


Some pre-service teachers also remarked that helping pupils explore drama as an educational device in class has an impact on the development of their communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal with the following comments being typical: ‘drama mobilises creativity, but also skills enabling the pupil to practise his L2 while mobilising his body, which helps with memorization’; ‘there are a whole bunch of possibilities, and it won’t just teach them English, but also to be more self-confident, manage their stage fright, trust the others, listen to each other, work in a group, a group that really works together’; ‘it allows them/ us to develop the gestures that accompany language.’

Without naming it, in these responses they are referring to ‘translangageance’ – a term defined by Aden and Eschenauer (2020). While Garcia and Wei first defined ‘translanguaging’ (from Williams’ coinage of the term in 1994) as a practice where multilingual speakers communicate using at least two languages (García & Li, 2014; Williams, 1994), Aden and Eschenauer refer to it as a concept at ‘the intersection of Francisco Varela’s enaction paradigm (1996) and the performative turn in cultural studies.’ (Aden & Eschenauer, 2020, p. 102). They develop it into what they call ‘translangageance’ which describes the ‘process of emergence of a common language that makes sense, through all forms of language.’ (Aden & Eschenauer, 2020, p. 102). The forms of language referred to here, pertain to verbal, emotional and kinaesthetic repertoires. Along those lines then, role play, improvisation and drama become educational devices that train students to communicate in class and prepare them to be good communicators outside the classroom/ the school.

Drama and the French curriculum

The students also saw the benefits (developing language and other skills) of drama as an educational enactive device and thought improvisation and role-play would not be difficult to implement in class (15/17 totally agree). However, they did not dare to incorporate them in their own classes for several reasons. They mention ‘lack of training’, or their own personality, with some students admitting they were too ‘shy’. Others argued that a ‘lack of time’ would limit their use of this pedagogy, since there are fewer and fewer English lessons in the French curriculum. They argued that a more favourable setting would be required for them to try these methods in their own classes, and further, that they would need to be trained for this purpose. In addition to that, they suggested that if drama courses were included in the school curriculum across all levels, there would not be any surprise or stress for students encountering it in higher education.


This research sheds light on the views of pre-service teachers when introduced to drama activities for foreign language learning. Artistic practices are under-represented in secondary education in France, mainly because they are no longer used as a classroom activity after primary school, so pupils become unused to them. This is a long-lasting educational culture that the pre-service language teachers inherit. Reintroducing artistic practices at master’s level seems to be too late for the students, who find them daunting after years without this type of activity. My workshop was aimed at helping pre-service teachers break this educational culture by providing them with some insights into the learning possibilities that are opened up when drama is used in secondary school language classes. However, as drama is not part of curriculum in France, as it already is in many countries like Iceland, the UK, Canada, and Australia (Fairhead & Pascoe, 2021; Stinson & Saunders, 2016), this goal may be a very challenging one to achieve.

Accepted: November 01, 2023 AEST


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Appendix 1 – Pre-intervention questionnaire

Educational devices

About you

  1. You are: a man / a woman / I don’t want to answer

  2. What is your age?

  3. Have you ever worked in middle school / high school / both / other? Specify:

  4. What classes have you taught to this year (for your training session)?

Language learning/teaching devices

  1. Do you know what a language learning/teaching device is? If yes, go directly to question 7.


  2. What does the term ‘device’ mean to you in a language learning/teaching context?

  3. Can you try to define what a language learning/teaching device is? (End of questionnaire for those who do not know what a device is)

  4. What language learning/teaching devices do you know?

  5. Which ones have you used in class as a student?

  6. Which ones have you used in your classes as a teacher?

  7. Which ones did you prefer? Rank them from most preferred (#1) to least preferred (#5) and give reasons for your preference (in 50 words).

Appendix 2 – Post-intervention questionnaire

Educational devices

About you

  1. You are: a man / a woman / I don’t want to answer

  2. What is your age?

  3. You did your internship(s) in: middle school / high school / university (circle the correct answer, several choices are possible)

  4. Which class(es) have you taught to this year?

About the educational device

  1. What learning/teaching arrangement have you experienced today?

  2. Is this the first time you have tried this device?

    Yes / No / Don’t know

  3. Why do you think this device has a didactic value?

  4. What were your first impressions?

  5. Explain your impressions in a few lines.

  6. What emotion(s) did you feel?

  7. Why did you feel this way? Explain in a few lines.

  8. For each entry, give your opinion by checking the corresponding box:

Strongly agree Agree Disagree Strongly disagree
a. This device is a language learning/teaching one
b. This device is innovative
c. Students will be receptive to this device
d. I will use this device in the classroom
e. This device helps build language skills
f. This device helps build other skills
g. This device is difficult to implement in a language class
  1. At what level(s) of instruction would you suggest this device?

  2. Explain in a few lines and give examples of classroom application and skills developed.

  1. ‘[De l’anglais ‘to enact’ : susciter, faire advenir, faire émerger], dans le but de souligner la conviction croissante selon laquelle la cognition, loin d’être la représentation d’un monde pré-donné, est l’avènement conjoint d’un monde et d’un esprit à partir de l’histoire des diverses actions qu’accomplit un être dans le monde.’

  2. ‘La plus importante faculté de toute cognition vivante est précisément dans une large mesure, de poser les questions pertinentes qui surgissent à chaque moment de notre vie. Elles ne sont pas prédéfinies mais enactées, on les fait émerger sur un arrière-plan et les critères de pertinence sont dictés par notre sens commun, d’une manière toujours contextuelle.’

  3. ‘L’intervention de l’implication du corporel et de l’émotionnel dans les processus d’apprentissage qui fait justement l’émergence du nouveau, c’est essentiel parce que sinon ça ne s’enracine pas dans un travail à dimension structurelle du corps et donc c’est un apprentissage superficiel (qui) passe très vite à une espèce de classement d’oubli d’abstraction.’

  4. ‘La posture structurelle d’un corps, qui comporte tous les niveaux émotionnels et hormonaux, n’est pas séparable des contenus rationnels. La rationalité est toujours imbibée de ce côté émotionnel.’

  5. ‘Les sites d’induction de l’émotion déclenchent un certain nombre de signaux vers d’autres sites du cerveau (…) et vers le corps.’

  6. ‘En formation, le dispositif se présente d’emblée comme l’artefact fonctionnel qui matérialise une organisation particulière d’objets, d’acteurs, de structures et de systèmes de relations, en fonction des objectifs de formation dans une situation donnée.’

  7. ‘Central et stratégique de toute une politique éducative traversant tous les niveaux des démarches d’apprentissage aux pratiques enseignantes.’

  8. These photos are published with the consent of the students.